Wednesday, April 10, 2013

General Bolden on the Moon

EDITORIAL : The Space Community experienced a minor brush fire late last week, set accidentally perhaps, by NASA administrator Charles Bolden and his reaction to the National Research Council's congressional-commissioned review of NASA’s "strategic vision."

It’s a sad fact of American politics that the release of the NRC report might have passed largely unnoticed had Bolden been as cryptic about the Moon’s place in NASA’s future as the rest of the administration has been from is beginning.

Instead he confirmed for us one line of reasoning into the administration’s actual rationale for erasing the Moon from National Space Policy, three years ago.

“I don’t know how to say it any more plainly,” Bolden said. “NASA does not have a human lunar mission in its portfolio, and we are not planning for one.”

He warned the next administration not to change course “again” back to the Moon. That would mean, he said, the U.S. would “never again see Americans on the Moon, on Mars, near an asteroid, or anywhere. We cannot continue to change the course of human exploration.”

“NASA will not take the lead on a human lunar mission,” Bolden said. “NASA is not going to the Moon with a human as a primary project probably in my lifetime,” because “we can only do so many things, and NASA’s focus will remain on human missions to asteroids and Mars.”

“All that was 'a given,' three years ago,” Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan said afterward on Tuesday, perhaps forgetting along with General Bolden, that "going to the Moon as a primary project" has not been a goal of the American government since 1969, and this was never "a primary project" of the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004 or of those who recognize the Moon's strategic and scientific value and who still support restoring the Moon back into scientific context today.

On the surface there did seem little that was new in Bolden’s protests. All the superficial reasons for dropping the Moon as an intermediate objective on the way to Mars spread abroad by the administration and its supporters still make little sense. No one who seriously supported a return to the Moon as an essential objective on the way to Mars ever hoped simply to recreate Apollo. 

And if it’s asteroids you want, the Moon has been an asteroid magnet for about 4.575 billion years.

Aside from the glaring hole left by having had the Moon erased from National Space Policy, three years after the cancellation of Constellation, America's deep space efforts are really little different from what they were at the end of the Bush administration, with little actual progress having been made not already set in motion before President Obama's Inauguration.. 

Aside from the missing Altair lander, and the R&D required to build it, together with a simple recognition of the Moon’s clear strategic value in overcoming tremendous technological challenges facing any manned mission to Mars, very little has actually changed.

The end goal of landing astronauts on Mars, someday, some way, in budgetary “out years,” is still the same, as was retiring the Space Shuttle and planned development and use of commercial transportation to ISS. These were integral to the Vision for Space Exploration introduced in 2004. Though some seem determined to credit the administration with having dreamed up subsidized commercial space, and certainly for popularizing the idea, that too was integral to the VSE and as far as presidents go the initiative dates back to Ronald Reagan.

From a political perspective, with unwitting help from General Bolden, we no longer have to simply make educated guessed as to why the Moon was edited out of NASA’s strategy. As it turns out, it was not the “been there, done that” argument offered by the President, after all..

Bolden has finally confirmed for us one line of investigation into the mysterious missing Moon by simply telling us that the Obama administration just does not want the American governmentto take the leadon any manned return to the Moon.

Thus, it was a political decision, dressed up and oversold with some of the tired arguments originally heard forty years ago.

That's not a crime, of course. Thankfully Bolden has also communicated that the administration is not opposed to "leading from behind" on a manned mission to the Moon, perhaps lead by a different nation, nor does he rule out robotic exploration, though the nation has so far committed only to finishing or fulfilling the precursor robotic lunar missions that were either already underway or already long in the pipeline.

We are genuinely grateful the administration appears unwilling to stand in the way of any commercial manned or unmanned landings in the Moon.

But why this passionate and now very specfic opposition to America leading while exploring and using the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars and as a Rosetta Stone for the rest of the Solar System?

In light of all the other alterations made to the President's 'asteroid initiative' over the past three years, was the administration's unyielding position the original and still primary reason the whole Constellation program was cancelled?

The Moon, and those of us still urging policy makers to take another look at its advantages over manned asteroids exploration, are apparently occasionally being heard in the White House. In the past three years the administration has occasionally floated tantalizing trial balloons, future efforts involving the Moon, but specifically without any  human landing.

One thing is different in the past three years. The small flotilla of remote sensing spacecraft, from Japan, China and India, as well as the U.S. sent to the Moon, and inspired by the lead America had taken with in 2004, after a long national drought five American spacecraft in lunar orbit simultaneously for most of this past year, and planetary scientists have learned more about the Moon since 2004 than in the two decades previous.

This new look at the Moon has by now strongly confirmed the Moon's strategic importance and its usefulness to science, and as a logical support for future manned missions to Mars.
"Just after it has been relegated to a “been there, done that” status, the Moon again shows us we have a lot to learn about its history, physical state and the potential value of its resources. We must take the initiative to learn more as the Moon is crucial in developing and advancing a sustainable space faring infrastructure." -   Paul D. Spudis

Why then, like Arthur C. Clarke’s Europa, are American astronauts to “attempt no landing there?” If we are taking the lead going to Mars, our role in a return to the Moon along that path would seem to be irrelevant.

This much is clear. Leaving the Moon out as an intermediate goal, as a place where America already has a momentary and essential lead, is a stubbornly held position dear to the administration.From Bolden’s statements late last week one might think someone had suggested NASA’s strategy for building a path to Mars should be renamed back to “Constellation.”

Though only occasionally experienced, if America’s history and the nation's storied history of manned space exploration has succeeded in teaching us anything it has taught history has a very tight turning radius.

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